Education and Economism

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

This article appeared in the Christian Century June 17, 24, l987;pp. 258-260. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Christianism led Western Europe to the catastrophe of the religious wars. Nationalism led to the catastrophe of two World Wars and the Holocaust. Economism is now leading to both social and ecological catastrophes of global proportions. Those who are already experiencing these catastrophes, along with others who see them coming in more massive forms, are forming alliances not only to protest but also to push for change before it is truly too late. The author calls this Earthism, and he holds that that seminaries and church-related colleges and universities must give leadership in the greening of higher education. He describes the challenge.

As a creature of an historicistic education, I understand myself, our institutions, and our society only as I set them in some sweeping overview of history, knowing that this is only one of many possible overviews. As a theologian I am preoccupied with the history of faith, or basic orientation, or controlling commitment. This has led me to develop a periodization of history that I want to share it with you.

Until the middle of the seventeenth century Western Europe was organized around commitment to Christianity. Some devoted themselves to the God Christians worshipped. But the dominant structures were ordered more to the promotion and implementation of Christianity as an institution and as a system of beliefs and practices. Hence I call this the epoch of Christianism.

Christianism produced a system of education primarily for clergy but also for other professionals. Its universities were centers of genuine intellectual activity. The issues believed to be most important were debated. The attainment of truth was taken to be inherently important.

The fragmentation of Christendom by the Reformation did not immediately end the epoch of Christianism. On the contrary, commitment to Christianity was never more intense than in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The difference was that, instead of unifying society, it functioned divisively. This culminated in the horrors of the Thirty Years War.

Chrstians then decided to subordinate the divisive expressions of their faith to a locally-unifying political order. Of course the secular authorities had long struggled with the church for power. But previously they gained their legitimacy from the same Christianity as the church. The goods they served were defined by Christianity. The ecclesiastical and secular authorities were twin expressions of one ideology. Now power shifted decisively to the state. Loyalty to the state took precedence over acting on religious convictions. Only so could society be healed.

Furthermore, new myths were created to provide independent legitimacy for the state. These argued that in a state of nature individuals suffered from lack of security. To gain such security they surrendered some of their individual power and rights to a ruler who could provide the needed security. Government thus derived its legitimacy from the people rather than from Christian teaching. The era of nationalism was born.

Christianity continued to play a major role. But there was now a tendency to justify Christianity by its contribution to the national life. The deists feared that the lack of connection between virtue and reward in this life would lead to social chaos if there were no conviction that justice would be executed after death. Christian teaching could be very helpful if it connected salvation, not to holding sectarian beliefs, but to behavior supportive of public order, and it increasingly did so. Increasingly, it did so.

Education remained largely in the hands of churches for a long time. Education controlled by the government arose only gradually to supplement church-sponsored institutions. In the United States, prior to the second World War parochial schools played a large role among Roman Catholics. For others, the major church-sponsored schools were liberal arts colleges. These set the tone for many state-supported institutions as well.

Even where the church played a major role in education, the purpose was increasingly described in terms of service of the national society. In the United States the first years of education were primarily to prepare children coming from many countries to be citizens. Liberal arts colleges undertook to prepare their students to be good leaders in public life. What was required to this end was often understood as humanistic breeding, moral character, and reverence for God.

This nationalist epoch ended in the North Atlantic countries after a thirty-year orgy of ultra-nationalism from 1914 to 1944. After the Holocaust and World War II, citizens of many countries were fed up with the consequences of giving primary devotion to nation states. Europe reorganized itself as the European Economic Community. Alongside the United Nations, which was formed as an international organization, new global economic institutions were brought into being at Bretton Woods: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. During subsequent decades real power has passed increasingly from the United Nations to these. International treaties have become far less important than trade agreements such as GATT and NAFTA, which progessively erased national boundaries, and created such transnational institutions as the World Trade Organization.

In the United States we have been treated to a sustained attack on big government and even on national government as such. This attack is carried on by leading government officials and candidates for national office as well as from the private sector. Power has shifted from government to corporations, especially transnational ones. Government is evil because it restricts the freedom of these actors, and it is the business sector that is to provide for our real, i.e., economic, needs.

The accepted goal of governments is to facilitate the increased production of wealth. To this end they dismantle national boundaries as well as social policies designed to redistribute wealth or insure that the poorest are cared for. Society exists for the sake of the market, and the market is a global one. Human well-being is identified with economic prosperity. I call the new reality -- economism.

Since World War II, the churches' role in education at all levels has diminished, as the government has taken over. This appears to count against a shift from nationalism to economism, but in fact, just as in the nationalist epoch church institutions were justified by their contribution to the nation, now government institutions are justified by their service to the economy. The goal of public education at lower levels is to have a literate and qualified workforce. Now that business requires a more highly-trained workforce, college education is also provided. Preparation for many professions is added on to that.

One rarely hears any more that a college exists for the preparation of leaders in society. The goal is instead success in the market place. The issue, therefore, is what job one can get with what degree. Becoming a cultured individual sounds old-fashioned. Education has some responsibility to develop personal disciplines sought by employers, but little is said about moral character or reverence.

The major resistance to the total victory of economism in higher education is commitment to academic disciplines. Although it these disciplines are not oriented to the discovery of truth, within defined boundaries they seek ever-increasing information and refine their methods of inquiry. They are not geared to the needs of the market in any direct way, and they typically resist subordinating the themselves to an exterior norm.

This leaves to university administration the task of justifying the continuance of these disciplines in economistic terms. Fortunately, some business leaders believe that a general education serves future leaders well. They are willing to hire junior executives with broad educational backgrounds and provide the special training they need to be effective in their companies. This willingness allows faculties to design curricula that include a multiplicity of disciplines not directly contributory to particular jobs. But on the whole, the role of this kind of general education declines.

Beginning in the sixties there have been waves of protest both against the transformation of the university into an economistic institution and against academic disciplines that are not geared to the urgent issues of our time. These protests have had some effects. Special programs have been established in ethnic studies and in women's studies, for example, that address the needs of some students and support certain social movements. But they do not challenge the basic structure of the institution.

Christianism led Western Europe to the catastrophe of the religious wars. Nationalism led to the catastrophe of two World Wars and the Holocaust. Economism is now leading to both social and ecological catastrophes of global proportions. Those who are already experiencing these catastrophes, along with others who see them coming in more massive forms, are forming alliances not only to protest but also to push for change before it is truly too late. They are articulating a new concern, a new faith and a new commitment. I call this Earthism.

Earthists are working on many fronts. Some are spelling out the beliefs entailed in Earthism. Some are embodying these beliefs liturgically and spiritually. Some are fighting local battles to preserve some bit of nature or some disempowered people from further ravages. Some work on new legislation and other governmental action. Some are seeking to modify the great economic institutions that now rule the world. Some are working to awaken the religious communities to the new threats and to help rethink their contribution to the salvation of the Earth.

Earthism has produced many nongovernmental organizations committed to justice and to preserving the natural world. Alongside United Nations conferences, such as that at Rio, we are now accustomed to gatherings of NGO's. These speak with increasing coherence, giving voice to an Earthist perspective on the issues.

Economism is still tightening its control over all the major institutions of society. The power of transnational corporations grows ever greater. They have generated popular backlashes againsts Earthists. Support of environmental organizations is declining. At the moment it seems that a Democratic administration in Washington that includes enlightened environmentalists in key places will not be able to deliver at Kyoto even what was proposed by the Bush administration at Rio.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that Earthism is not a blip on the screen, but the seedbed of the future. It is even now a growing force that will not be deterred by temporary setbacks. Its motive force is at the depths of our beings.

One frontier on which Earthists must work is the university. To change higher education is no less important than to change governments, corporations, and transnational institutions. It is no easier.

There are currently few institutional bases on which to move most universities toward greening. No academic discipline leads its practitioners in this direction. Even the special programs in ethnic and women's studies are too preoccupied with their special interests and with gaining academic respectability to focus on this project. There are few universities in which the study of the university plays a significant role.

Nevertheless, higher education does change. It changed slowly from the dominance of Christianism to that of nationalism, but it changed much more rapidly from nationalism to economism. It can change again. Within its faculties are many who are not enamored of the current orientation. True, most of those who resist economism do so in the name of their disciplines rather than in the name of eco-justice. But this is partly because they have so little sense of what a university devoted to justice and sustainability would look like or what their roles could be within it. As schools like the University of LaVerne model the needed changes at institutional and curricular levels, and as more and more faculty are helped to think about how their own teaching can be greened, the pace of change can increase. As people like David Orr -- are there any others like him? -- involve wide swaths of faculty and students in doing the greening and learning by doing, universities will discover that their centers of gravity and their growing edges have shifted.

The church is no longer the institution that embodies the dominant values of society or functions in its vanguard. Still, the church has a special role to play now in higher education. Institutions with serious ties to churches have a lingering sense that education has a broader and deeper purpose than providing workers and management for the market.

This resistance is strongest among institutions related to churches that have been less mainstream in the cultural past. They include some Roman Catholic institutions as well as those related to the historic peace churches. But even in oldline Protestant schools there is some discomfort. Christians are uncomfortable with exclusive service of Mammon.

Seminaries, especially those that have been influenced by liberation theologies, recognize that professional ministerial education should not be defined only as meeting the institutional needs of the churches. The churches have a role in imagining a better society and seeking to embody it in proleptic ways. Seminaries have particular opportunities to contribute.

It is not, therefore, arbitrary or inappropriate that seminaries and church-related colleges and universities give leadership in the greening of higher education. We have a special possibility, and therefore a special responsibility. But we, too, change slowly.

At an early point in the program we are advancing here in this conference I had the opportunity to address the topic of the greening of seminary education at a conference at Stony Point. I argued for the importance of institutions as such in the greening process and specifically for the possibility of seminaries taking the lead in modeling the needed changes. Richard Clugston suggested that I repeat the specific questions I then raised in describing the multi-dimensional challenge.

First, there is the content of the curriculum. Is it shaped by awareness of the most pressing needs of the world? Does it offer a vision of a just and sustainable community? Does it motivate students to form such communities and enable them to do so? Does it help them understand both how the existing church blocks appropriate response and also its resources for metanoia? To what extent should students participate in determining the curriculum? What role should the church play? If we cannot truly rethink the curriculum, so that the horizon of all of the teaching is the reality of the world in which ministry occurs, any other changes that are made will be unsustainable.

Second, there is the method of instruction. This is the most threatening area for me personally, and it may be that I bring it up now only because I am retired and under to pressure to practice what I preach. I have enjoyed conventional lecturing amd discussion. I am not persuaded that these are always poor forms of teaching. But I am persuaded that there are other ways of involving students that are more empowering, that more participatory and egalitarian styles better express the vision I share with those, like Mary Elizabeth Moore and Frank Rogers, who have put them into practice.

We need to ask also whether the content and style of instruction are sensitive to the ethnic diversity of the students. Do they meet their differing needs and involve them in ways that are appropriate to their cultural differences? If we undertake to help them transcend their cultures, do we do so in accordance with their own desire to do so?

Third, there is the matter of how we worship. Can worship perform its function of building community around a shared love of God and the Earth? Can it open us up to one another, or does it become one more source of division? Can it overcome the deepseated habit of associating God with the individual human soul and reestablish the self-evidence of God's primary relationship to the world? Can it manifest the unity of the concerns for the oppressed and for the natural world?

Fourth, there are questions of personnel. Is affirmative action working satisfactorily? Should special consideration be given to having a faculty and staff that mirror the ethnic and gender diversity within the student body? Should concern for the Earth become a requirement of those to be appointed? How otherwise can reforms be sustained? What about the membership of the Board of Trustees?

Fifth, there are questions of rank, tenure, and salary? Do the differences between tenured and non-tenured faculty and the different ranks contribute to a just and sustainable community or inhibit its development? Are salary differences within the faculty, within the staff, and between faculty and staff appropriate or damaging? Are there any ways to establish salaries other than market competition? How open should the budgeting process be to the various segments of the seminary community?

Sixth, there are questions about the relation of employment and finance to the students. Could or should students constitute a larger portion of the employees of the School, reducing their need to work elsewhere? Would that enhance community or hurt it? Could seminaries organize themselves so that financial pressures on students would be reduced and more of them could give primary attention to their participation in the life of the school? Can this become a central part of their prepartion for ministry?

Seventh, there is the governance of the institution -- the separation of powers among students, faculty, staff, and trustees. Can we find ways of governance that allow for greater participation of the whole community without making undue demands on participants or clouding the diversity of responsibilities and roles within the institution? Can we gain greater mutual appreciation and respect through freer interaction?

Eighth, there is the question of the funding of the institution and the investment of its resources. If funding is now dependent on sources that resist institutional change, can these sources participate in discussions that would reassure them about such change? Can other sources of funding be found who would be enthusiastic about a just and sustainable community? Can investments be withdrawn from companies that work against justice and sustainability? Or can the trustees use the institution's investments to work for change? Can money be invested in small, local businesses, especially minority ones, or those operated by students?

Ninth, there are buildings and grounds. When new buildings are constructed, can they be designed to make minimum use of scarce resources? Can the community participate in planning them? Can they be built so as to encourage community among those who occupy them? Can old buildings be remodeled to such ends? Can the grounds be planted in ways that reduce the pressure on resources -- such as water in dry areas or the need for airconditioning where it is hot? Is maximum use being made of solar energy for heating and cooling as well as for hot water? Could some of the energy needed on campus be produced locally?

Tenth, there are purchasing policies. Can the school meet more of its requirements through purchase of locally produced goods? For example, can more of the food served on campus be grown on local farms? Can the school support farmers who are growing food organically? Can places be found on campus to grow some food? Can the school engage in affirmative action with regard to purchasing from small minority businesses? Can faculty, students, and staff also arrange their purchases with similar considerations in mind?

Eleventh, there are other questions about the food served on campus. What role should meat play in the diet? Are there reasons to avoid meat altogether or at least to eat further down on the food chain? Can we avoid supporting those forms of factory farming that cause extreme suffering to animals? Should there be an effort to introduce the whole community to the foods of different cultural groups represented within it?

Twelfth, there are still other questions about the use of resources in the functioning of the community. Can we not only recycle but also reduce the amount of paper and metals used in the academic and business life of the school? Can we avoid so much packaging? To take the use of paper as an example of our institutional consumptive habits, must student papers be written on only one side of a page? Must they be doublespaced? Do we need as many copies of documents as we typically make? Can new technology reduce the use of paper instead of increasing it?

Thirteenth, there are other issues of lifestyle. Can or should life on the campus become more communal? Should this reflect cultural lines, or should there be more experiments in cross-cultural intentional community? Can changed lifestyles be a means of living more cheaply and reducing financial pressures on students and on the school budget? Can changes of this sort have an effect on faculty and staff as well?

Fourteenth, there are questions about the nature of student life and organization. Should the community strive to integrate each student directly into its total life, or should it affirm instead a diversity of caucuses or groups within it? In short, should it aim to be a single community, or should it model itself as a community of communities? How can it best implement either goal? If caucuses are needed in a just and sustainable community, will the new context affect their self-understanding?

Fifteenth, there are questions about how a seminary relates to other schools of theology. Is this relation primarily competitive? Does this competition cost each seminary money that could do more for the church and the world if it were spent cooperatively? For example, can recruitment for ministry become more cooperative and less competitive?

Sixteenth, there are questions about how faculty members relate to their guilds. If we learn to teach with different foci and emphases, perhaps with less isolation from one another and more emphasis on the needs of students, the church, and the world, can we affect the ways in which our guilds function? Can the academic disciplines themselves be reformed? Or can ways of organizing research and teaching other than through traditional disciplines actually replace the disciplinary and guild systems?

If questions of these types are to become important to the shaping of seminaries, some means must be found to keep them, and the goal they represent before these institutions. The need is for strategic thinking, practical enticements, celebration of successes, and seizing opportunities as they appear. In short, the need is for the leadership of Richard Clugston and Dieter Hessel and the sort of programs in which we are here engaged. May this conference play its intended role in moving us forward in our understanding and our actions. And may all our efforts prosper.